Asset 2@4x
Young girl performing acts of service helping a young boy off the ground

Acts of Service: The Secret Ingredient to Discovering Awe


In a world increasingly seeking moments of transcendence and meaning, the concept of awe has never been more relevant. I had the opportunity to interview Dacher Keltner, a distinguished professor at the University of California, Berkeley, who explores this profound emotional experience in his latest book, aptly titled “Awe.”

While many of us anticipate awe-inspiring moments to emerge from grand vistas, monumental life events, or the mysteries of the universe, Keltner’s research unveils a surprising and deeply touching source of awe: the simple, yet profound acts of service performed by individuals around us.

This unexpected revelation challenges our traditional perceptions of where awe can be found and invites us to look closer at the everyday acts of kindness and altruism that often go unnoticed. In our conversation, Keltner sheds light on why observing acts of service is such a potent source of awe and how this understanding can significantly impact our pursuit of a life filled with passion, purpose, and connection.

As we explore the insights from Keltner’s research, we are invited to reconsider not only what we think we know about awe but also how we can actively engage with the world around us to experience more of these peak moments. This article aims to delve into the heart of awe, examining its implications for personal growth and how becoming “Passion Struck” is intricately linked with the service and empathy we extend to others.

A Moment on a City Street: The Unseen Avenues to Awe

Imagine a busy city street, people rushing by, lost in the routines of their daily lives. Among them walks Sarah, a corporate lawyer, always on the move, her mind occupied with the next case, the next meeting. One day, on her way to work, Sarah notices a small crowd gathered on the sidewalk. Curious, she slows down, something she rarely does.

In the center of the crowd stands an elderly man, his hands trembling as he tries to pick up his spilled groceries. People pass by; some glance sympathetically, but most are too hurried to stop. Then, a young boy, no more than eight, breaks from the crowd. With a smile, he kneels beside the man, helping him gather his belongings and chatting with him as if they were old friends.

Quote by John R. Miles on the impact of acts of service on personal growth

Sarah watches, initially impatient, but something shifts within her. For the first time in a long while, she feels a profound sense of awe — not from the grand achievements she’s accustomed to chasing but from this simple act of kindness. Moved, she steps forward to help, and for a few minutes, the busy street transforms into a place of connection and humanity.

This moment stays with Sarah. It becomes a turning point, reminding her that awe and fulfillment often lie in the most unexpected places. Inspired, she starts volunteering at a local shelter on weekends, finding joy and purpose in acts of service. Through this journey, Sarah discovers that peak experiences don’t always require grand gestures or achievements but can be found in the everyday acts of kindness that connect us all.

Exploring the Essence of Awe

Sarah’s unexpected moment of transformation on a bustling city street invites us to delve into a profound question: What is awe, and how does it enrich our lives?

Awe is a multifaceted emotion elicited when we’re confronted with something vast and extraordinary that challenges our conventional worldview. This feeling is a blend of wonder, amazement, and, occasionally, a touch of fear or profound respect. Triggered by a diverse array of experiences — from the majestic beauty of nature, artistic and musical marvels, acts of profound kindness, to spiritual and scientific revelations — awe compels us to look beyond our everyday existence.

The Dual Nature of Awe

Awe influences us on both psychological and physiological levels. Psychologically, it fosters a deeper connection with those around us, instilling a sense of being part of a greater whole and shifting our perspective to one that’s more reflective and humble. It inspires altruism, enhances life satisfaction, and nudges our values towards a community-focused outlook.

Physiologically, awe can be calming, decelerating our sense of time, reducing stress, and sometimes bolstering our immune system. Research indicates that awe’s impact is profound and enduring, positively shaping our well-being and attitudes.

Awe is a pivotal element in finding meaning in life, encouraging us to broaden our horizons, and has been a cornerstone in philosophy, religion, and art. At its core, awe helps us transcend mundane concerns, paving the way for a deeper self-understanding and realizing our place in the cosmos.

A New Perspective on Awe

Dacher Keltner’s groundbreaking research introduces a refreshing angle on awe, suggesting that its roots may be more accessible and communal than previously thought. Through the lens of acts of service, Keltner proposes that awe is not just about solitary or natural encounters but also deeply social, emanating from the beauty of human actions and their ripple effects.

Awe by Dacher Keltner about how acts of service impact our peak experiences

Consider the simple yet profound kindness of the young boy helping the main pick up his groceries. This act, small in scale but immense in impact, embodies awe’s true spirit by highlighting our common humanity and the remarkable capacity for goodness in daily interactions.

Abraham Maslow’s concept of peak experiences parallels the experience of awe. These profound moments, whether in nature, through pivotal life events, or via acts of kindness, can deeply influence our personal development and sense of fulfillment. They serve as beacons of self-actualization, revealing our potential for greatness and the world’s inherent beauty.

Through this lens, we begin to see that the path to experiencing awe and leading a passion-struck life is multifaceted. It invites us to find wonder in the extraordinary and the ordinary acts of generosity that define our shared human experience.

Understanding the Impact of Service on Awe

Why do acts of service have such a profound impact on our sense of awe? When we witness or learn about someone performing a selfless deed, it challenges our preconceived notions about human behavior and societal expectations, shining a light on the remarkable potential for kindness and generosity inherent in each of us.

These moments are powerful reminders of our collective humanity and our capacity to put aside personal gain for the greater good. The understanding that individuals are willing to make substantial sacrifices for others or a cause expands our perception of what is achievable, sparking awe and renewing our belief in the goodness of humanity.

For instance, research indicates that seeing acts of kindness can stimulate areas of the brain associated with social gratification, like the ventral striatum, suggesting that there is an inherent joy in witnessing generosity, which brings feelings of happiness and contentment.

Further studies reveal that people who frequently witness acts of kindness experience higher levels of happiness and lower rates of stress and depression. This implies that by actively recognizing and valuing acts of service in our everyday lives, we can significantly enhance our mental well-being and build emotional resilience.

Historical Acts of Service That Inspire Awe

History is replete with examples of acts of service that have left an indelible mark on the collective human consciousness, eliciting feelings of awe across generations. Consider the selfless work of Mother Teresa in the slums of Calcutta, dedicating her life to aiding those in dire need, or the courageous actions of individuals like Harriet Tubman, who risked everything to lead others to freedom. 

Modern examples include healthcare workers on the front lines of the global pandemic, offering selfless care amid uncertainty and danger, and everyday heroes stepping up during natural disasters to save lives and rebuild communities. These instances of profound altruism and bravery resonate deeply, inspiring awe and admiration in observers worldwide.

Through Keltner’s lens, we see that awe is not solely the domain of the extraordinary but is deeply woven into the fabric of human connection and compassion. Observing acts of service expands our understanding of awe, encouraging us to find it in the selflessness and kindness that surround us, often in the most unexpected places.

The Psychological Impact of Observing Acts of Service

The act of witnessing or learning about altruistic deeds has a profound psychological impact, triggering a cascade of emotional and cognitive responses that underscore the multifaceted nature of awe. Let’s delve into how observing acts of service enriches our psychological landscape, fostering empathy, connectedness, and a shift from self-centered to other-centered living.

Emotional and Cognitive Responses to Altruism

The experience of observing altruism often elicits a deep emotional resonance, stirring feelings of admiration, gratitude, and sometimes even a poignant sense of humility. Significant cognitive shifts underpin these emotional reactions; witnessing selflessness challenges our preconceived notions about human behavior and societal norms, prompting us to reassess our values and priorities. This cognitive reappraisal can lead to a more optimistic and generous view of humanity, inspiring us to reflect on our capacity for kindness and to consider how we might contribute more positively to the lives of others.

Empathy and Connectedness: The Heart of Awe Through Service

Empathy plays a crucial role in the process of experiencing awe through acts of service. Observing someone engaging in selfless acts activates our capacity to empathize, allowing us to share in the emotional experiences of both the giver and receiver of kindness. This empathetic engagement fosters a profound sense of connectedness with the individuals directly involved and the broader human community. In these moments of shared humanity, we often experience awe, a recognition of something greater than ourselves that binds us together in mutual compassion and understanding.

Six Practical Steps for Integrating Acts of Service into Daily Life

In today’s fast-paced world, it’s easy to become engulfed in our personal bubbles, often forgetting the profound impact we can have on others and the world around us. Acts of service offer a powerful antidote to this isolation, connecting us to the larger tapestry of human experience and unlocking a deep sense of awe and fulfillment. However, the question remains: how can we seamlessly weave these acts into the fabric of our daily lives?

These six practical steps will help you start the journey toward a more altruistic and awe-inspiring life.

  • Start Small: Acts of service don’t need to be grandiose to be meaningful. Small, everyday actions — such as helping a neighbor, volunteering a few hours of your time, or simply offering a kind word — can have a profound impact.
  • Be Present: Cultivate mindfulness in your daily interactions. Being fully present allows you to notice opportunities for kindness and service that you might otherwise overlook.
  • Seek Volunteer Opportunities: Engage with local community organizations or online platforms to find volunteer opportunities that resonate with your passions and skills.
  • Foster Empathy: Actively practice empathy by listening to and reflecting on the experiences of others. This can be through reading, attending community events, or having meaningful conversations.
  • Reflect on Acts of Service: After engaging in or observing an act of service, take time to reflect on the experience. Consider the impact on both yourself and those you’ve served, and allow these reflections to deepen your sense of awe and connectedness.
  • Share Your Experiences: Sharing stories of service and awe can inspire others and create a ripple effect of altruism and empathy within your community.

By integrating these practices into our lives, we enrich our personal journey of becoming “Passion Struck” and contribute to the cultivation of a more compassionate, empathetic, and awe-inspiring world. Through acts of service, we discover that the path to awe and fulfillment lies not just in what we experience but in what we give to others.

Embracing Awe Through Acts of Service

Dacher Keltner’s exploration into the nature of awe challenges and expands our understanding of this profound emotional experience. His research underscores that awe is not solely reserved for grand vistas or monumental moments but is frequently ignited by the simple yet mighty acts of service and altruism we witness or partake in. This insight shifts the paradigm of how we seek and experience awe, emphasizing the beauty and significance of selflessness and human connection.

The transformative potential of redefining awe in the context of service is immense. By engaging in acts of kindness and observing the altruism around us, we can cultivate a life rich in awe-inspiring moments. This approach not only enriches our individual lives but can also strengthen the fabric of our communities, creating a more empathetic, connected, and fulfilled society.

In leading a passion-struck life, awe plays a pivotal role. It fuels our drive for purpose, deepens our connections with others, and enhances our sense of fulfillment. By embracing awe, especially through acts of service, we open ourselves to a world brimming with wonder and opportunities for growth, inspiring us to live more passionately and purposefully.

Start Your Own Journey of Everyday Generosity

Let us embrace the journey of discovering awe in the everyday acts of kindness and service surrounding us. I encourage you to seek out opportunities to contribute positively to the lives of others, whether through volunteering, lending a helping hand to a neighbor, or simply offering a word of encouragement to someone in need.

I invite you to share your own experiences of awe — those moments of profound connection and inspiration — in the comments section or on social media. Let’s create a collective narrative celebrating the myriad ways awe touches our lives.

For those intrigued by the concept of awe and wishing to delve deeper, I recommend further reading on the subject and exploring the works of Dacher Keltner, David Yaden, David Vago, and Scott Barry Kauffman. Their insights provide a rich foundation for understanding the complexities and joys of awe, guiding us toward a more compassionate, awe-filled life.

Together, let’s redefine our pursuit of awe, finding it not just in the extraordinary but in the everyday acts of generosity that exemplify the best of humanity. In doing so, we pave the way for a passion-struck life, marked by an unending quest for meaning, connection, and joy.

If you want to continue building on how you instill mattering into your life, please refer to my book, Passion Struck: 12 Powerful Principles to Unlock Your Purpose and Unleash Your Most Intentional Life.

Thank you for taking the time to engage with my perspectives. May your journey be filled with joy, growth, and fulfillment.

As a new reader, please check my personal growth and well-being stories reflecting my reviews, observations, and decades of research and interviews.

The Power of Choice, Overcoming Traumatic Brain Injury, Reverse Aging, Significance, Optimal Anxiety, Person of Courage, The Power of Hope, Being Stuck, Curiosity, Awe, 5 AM Club, Strong Moral Compass, Psychological Immune System, Playing The Long Game, Drama Addiction, Trust Building Exercises, Taking The Road Less Traveled, Why Passion is the New Currency, Unreseasonable Hospitality, Five Senses, Digital Addiction, When to Quit, Effortless Perfection, Mental Immunity, Sensory Experiences, The Value of Struggle, Overcome Challenges, Victim Mentality, Anger Management, Gratitude, Vulnerability, Free Will, and the Power of Asking.

You might find more information about my professional background. You can listen to the #1 Alternative Health Podcast, Passion Struck, with John R. Miles. You may join Medium with my referral link to enjoy unlimited content.



Pin It on Pinterest

Share This

Share this post with your friends!